The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

Man Sharing problem with friends (cropped 2)

We have all heard the or used the terms “empathy”and “sympathy” interchangeably. However, empathy and sympathy are quite different. The definition for sympathy is: “harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another”. Whereas the definition for sympathy is: “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” So what does this mean? In simpler terms sympathy is when someone understands your feelings and respects them. Empathy on the other hand is when someone shares that pain with you.

The best video to watch to really understand the difference between empathy and sympathy is Brene Brown on Empathy. She explains how empathy is more helpful than sympathy. For those who struggle with an addiction, a mental disorder, or just grief know how annoying “sympathizers who want to fix things” can be. These people say, “well yeah, but look at all you have”. Now, I’m not saying that looking at the good things in your life while you’re suffering is a bad thing. In fact, it can be a great thing. Sometimes we caught up in the negative and we forget to look at the positive and it can be nice to have a reminder to look at what you have. However, most of the time the most helpful thing you can do is to feel their pain yourself. Instead of saying, “well look at what you have”, you can say, “wow, that would be really hard, I can’t even imagine what you are going through, but I’m glad that you shared that with me and I will sit with you until you want me to leave.”

It’s easier for some people to imagine walking in another’s person’s shoes than other people, but practice makes perfect. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes you can’t always use how you would react to a situation. You have to imagine, with their personality and the struggles they have been through, how THEY would feel.

Being a family member or a friend of someone who struggles with addiction, mental illness, or going through grief can be difficult. They don’t understand why their loved one can’t just quit, get their butts out of bed, just calm down, or focus on the positive. If they were to practice empathy, however, they would be able to understand, help, and gain the trust of these loved ones.

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